He first looked for him among the photos of the dead bodies, taken from waist up to facilitate recognition by family members. Then, not finding him, he went to explore the areas near his house and eventually found him dead inside the car, submerged by the tsunami. Dead bodies, destroyed houses, devastation, the fury of nature. Satou Yukio agrees to recount those tragic days that have forever changed his country’s recent history. On March 11, 2011, at 14:46 local time, a magnitude-9 earthquake shook the northeastern coast of Japan, in the Tōhoku region, unleashing a devastating tsunami that travelled at 700 km/h with a wave height of up to 10 meters. This fury destroyed everything, including the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Ōkuma. It was a compounding tragedy. According to data from Caritas Japan, 19,689 people were killed with 2,563 missing. Most of them died as a result of the tsunami. In addition to these deaths, 3,723 people have died in the past eight years as a result of poor living conditions as evacuees. Many committed suicide.
Satou Yukio is now Caritas president in the Holy Family parish-church in the Fuchu district, 20 kilometres from Tokyo. We met him here a few days before the arrival of Pope Francis in Japan. Despite a tight schedule, the Pope will have the opportunity to speak with the victims of that “triple disaster”. It’s an eagerly awaited encounter, laden with unforgettable memories, in harmony with the theme chosen for this papal visit: “Protect all life.” “We want Pope Francis, and with him the whole world, to know what happened”, said Satou Yukio, “and that people continue suffering to this day. Some have lost their children, others a brother, or a parent. There are broken families that lost everything they had. Many children are orphaned. However, when we meet, we no longer talk about it. We have difficulty remembering. Time stopped there.”
Satou Yukio’s thoughts go Ishinomaki, the city where he was born. It was among the communities most severely hit by the earthquake and tsunami. Waves reached a 10-meter height and travelled inland as far as 5 kilometres from the coast. About 46% of the city was flooded. Satou Yukio was working in the hospital that day. As soon as he learned of the earthquake, he started following the news on the Internet. “I realized from the images that the streets had all been swallowed by the sea. Even the area where I lived had been swept away. Since I knew my father was at home, I wanted to go there right away, but roads were closed off and phone reception was cut.” Even the military struggled to reach the affected areas in the aftermath of the disaster and could only do so two days later when the water level lowered. Satou Yukio was able to return only 10 days later.
“A cousin accompanied me to go find my father,” he said. “As soon as we arrived, all we saw around us were dead bodies. Bodies everywhere: inside the houses, on the road. Everywhere.
Amidst utter devastation. Houses, warehouses, factories. Everything was destroyed. A kindergarten was entirely swept away. Cars were swept on rooftops. It was such a shock that I was unable to take a picture. Even the TV avoided broadcasting the most tragic footage. We never saw an image.”
For three to four months, gas and electricity were cut off in the area. Satou Yukio recalls the situation in the city of Namie-machi, one of the most severely hit by the tsunami. Firefighters and civil protection were among the first to enter the city to help the population, but they were called back to the area of the nuclear power plant accident and were forced to leave the city, promising they would return. They did so only a month later, but for many it was too late. “People in this city didn’t die from the tsunami but from hunger, disease and injuries.” As many as 274 people in Namie died of hunger, according to official figures.
A disgrace for a country which values and demands efficiency, an incident which the government placed under “state secrecy.”
Searching for loved ones still missing among the corpses was the “the most tragic thing” for everyone, remembers Satou Yukio. “My father died in the car carried away by the water. We learned that when the earthquake occurred, he was worried about a friend of his. He took the car to reach him, but it was washed away by the tsunami. Japanese people are reluctant to share emotions and feelings. You must ask for permission before asking a question. Yukio agrees to do so and shares a thought that still gives him consolation today: “while the pictures of the dead bodies clearly showed that those people had suffered because they had died of suffocation, my father’s face was serene”.
Reconstructing. An intensive reclamation project is still underway in the area to decontaminate the affected areas and decommission the power plant. This process is estimated to last no less than 40 years. Despite the reassurances by TEPCO and the government, eight years after the nuclear disaster Greenpeace Japan is sounding the alarm: investigation shows radiation levels in many areas five to over 100 times higher than the recommended maximum, and that they will remain so for decades, exposing citizens to significant risks. A survey published a few days ago found an increase in thyroid cancer across the country but “the government – added Satou Yukio – said that there is no connection. The fact is that evacuees are afraid to return to their home cities, despite pressure from the government and the risk of losing their subsidies before long. Some people even deny being “a survivor of Fukushima.”
“What happened after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks is somewhat happening again.” “People are ashamed to say where they come from to avoid being considered contaminated.
Especially young people. They are afraid that their past could one day prevent them from finding a partner and getting married.” After the interview, Satou Yukio shows us a big box. It’s full of clean white rags to be shipped to the evacuees. There are also constant shipments of fresh vegetables and uncontaminated foodstuffs. “These are small signs, maybe unnoticeable, of support from Caritas.” Like always in this country, it’ s a simple and delicate way to let Fukushima know that here in Tokyo nobody has forgotten.